Peirce's more muscly, less refined film doesn't quite measure up to De Palma's masterpiece, but she puts up one hell of a fight.
Brian De Palma makes classics–from the gangster guts ‘n’ glory of Scarface to the thrilling cinematic barrage of Blow Out, his films will go down as some of the best in memory. Much like Gus Van Sant did with his re-imagining of Psycho, director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop Loss) faces a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle with her remake of one of De Palma’s greatest, the cult horror classic, Carrie. And, just like Van Sant, she bravely goes toe to toe, scene for scene, with an all-time great auteur, essentially mimicking the narrative structure of De Palma’s film which inherently, daringly says, “I can do better.” She’s got guts.
Look–it’s not impossible to improve upon a classic. Just look at De Palma’s own Scarface or Joe Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Does Peirce hold her own against the excellence of De Palma’s 1976 original? On some levels, yes, she does–her riffs on certain scenes are actually better than De Palma’s. But, overall, Peirce’s film is bested by the elegance, purity, and raw high school terror of the original, as she wastes time with trivial infusions of modernity and assembles a glaringly uneven cast.
The weight of the horned beast that is high school is enough to break anybody, and when you’re a bullied social outcast like Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz), the pressure is tremendous. Compounding the horrors of high school is her traumatic home life, which she shares with her psychotic, self-destructive mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore, monstrous), who beats into Carrie’s head (sometimes literally) that life’s pleasures are constructs of the devil and stuffs her into a dingy closet full of gothic religious knick-knacks on the regular. When we, along with Carrie, discover that she has potentially destructive (Peirce hammers this home) telekinetic powers, all of a sudden we have a classic “ticking time bomb” story on our hands. Smashed between two equally unbearable worlds, it’s only a matter of time before Carrie’s frustration erupts in a shower of destruction.
The original story (penned by Stephen King in the novel that spawned it all) had a simple shape, an elegant upward curve tarting with a trickle of blood–a flock of mean girls “stoning” a desperately confused Carrie with tampons–and ending with a bucket of pig’s blood that prompts Carrie to unleash hell. Peirce, however, mucks it up by introducing the modern complication of cell phone videos-gone-viral, which adds nothing interesting to the story and only serves to meddle with the pitch-perfect flow of King’s narrative. She’s also crafted a much more brutal, gory film here, with the super-power violence of the finale bearing a striking resemblance to the carnage at the end of last year’s Chronicle (a similar film, in many ways). The disgusting kills Peirce presents don’t seem to gel with the story as much as De Palma’s tamer sequences, but hell, the epic gore-storm is still a ton of fun to watch.
Sissy Spacek was iconic in her turn as the vengeful Carrie, and Moretz puts on a fine performance herself, though the blood-soaked dress doesn’t fit her quite as well. Moretz doesn’t convey frailty or meekness as well as Spacek does (few could), but the camera loves her (she was born to be on screen) and her more imposing physicality appropriately matches the inflated violence of Peirce’s version of the tale. During the explosive finale, she’s an otherworldly force of nature that’s more bad-ass (Kick-Ass?) than frightening, and though I prefer De Palma and Spacek’s more chilling take on the character, Peirce and Moretz super-villain version of Carrie White is stunning in its own right.
As mentioned, the cast is uneven, but sitting right at the top of the slope is Julianne Moore, who is, actually, much more terrifying and riveting than Piper Laurie, who originally played the sadistic Momma White. Moore’s deranged whispers and coos toe the line between disturbing and silly, but like the veteran she is, she always lands on the side of the former. She inflicts just as much, if not more, damage on herself than she does her daughter, jabbing sharp objects into her arms and thighs constantly, in some twisted form of repentance. The scenes between Moore and Moretz are unquestionably the best in the film, and they make the drama that plays out in the high school seem like they’re from a different, lesser movie. Portia Doubleday plays a decent bitch as Chris Hargensen, Carrie’s prime tormentor, but Gabriella Wilde is useless as Sue Snell, a remorseful rich girl who pushes her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom in a misguided act of charity. When sharing the screen with pros the caliber of Moore and Moretz, it’s hard not to get overshadowed, and they do.
Cinematically, Carrie no slouch, with some truly expertly crafted sequences. In De Palma’s film, a scene in which Tommy asks Carrie to prom on her doorstep at night is unremarkable at best, with Spacek looking over her shoulder in fear that her mother will catch them. In Peirce’s riff on the sequence, she puts the teens out in front of the house in broad daylight, with Moretz frantically scanning the road for her mother’s car, as she could be arriving at any moment. It’s much more suspenseful and engaging than the original setup, which says a lot about Peirce as a filmmaker. While De Palma’s Carrie is a film of camerawork, Peirce’s is one of editing, employing subjective cuts and slow-motion to generate momentum.
It’s difficult not to compare Carrie to the original 1976 version due to Peirce’s decision to essentially tell the same story, with only a few tweaks and updates here and there. While Peirce’s more muscly, less refined film doesn’t quite measure up to De Palma’s masterpiece, it dwarfs the typical torture-porn fare that we’re so inundated with during Halloween season. The ambition of Peirce, Moretz, and Moore shines through in the film’s strongest moments, and though the supporting players and shaky contemporary revisions weigh the film down, Peirce deserves credit for putting up one hell of a fight.